Uncovering the past in hidden graveyard


LEXINGTON PARK - It was the middle of World War II and, the official story goes, the Navy worried about forcing its superstitious pilots to fly over graves on the grounds of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station it was building here.

The Navy also worried about visitors who traveled the base's main road. The last thing they should see was such a stark reminder of the dead.

So the Navy made St. Nicholas Cemetery essentially disappear. Workers laid down the tombstones and covered them with dirt and sod. Future flyers wouldn't even know it had been there.

But old-timers would. And they would tell others. More than 60 years after what could have been the end of St. Nicholas Cemetery, where veterans from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 had been laid to rest among others, it is rising once again. Roughly 40 tombstones have been recovered, and there are plans to dig up and restore many more.

"When a family erects a stone to a loved one, it's meant to memorialize them. I feel we're obligated to protect that - even if they're long dead," said Scott D. Lawrence, who learned about the hidden graveyard from his grandfather. "It's unfortunate that it happened in the first place. At the same time, it's very fortunate that the wrong can be righted. ...

"I'm just glad they didn't pick the stones up and throw them in the river."

Not long before his grandfather died a few years ago, Lawrence asked him where to find the cemetery where their ancestors were buried. At St. Nicholas Church inside the gates of the Naval Air Station, Lawrence was told.

Lawrence, a federal contractor who worked on the base, had driven by that old church many times over the years. Only there wasn't any cemetery there, just a plush green manicured lawn.

So began a project that has taken Lawrence on a journey into the past that will continue long into the future. Lawrence would quickly learn there had indeed been a cemetery at St. Nicholas, where many of St. Mary's County's prominent citizens had been buried. He would find out that the Navy had meticulously laid down the tombstones and wooden crosses and other markers after it purchased the land in 1942 - and then buried them atop the bodies there.

He would be told he couldn't excavate the marble and granite monuments. And then, after refusing to take no for an answer, he would be told that under strict conditions, including that he always be accompanied by an archaeologist, he could try to restore what could be the burial ground for more than 600 who called Southern Maryland home.

Not everyone is buying into the Navy's rationale for trying to hide the graveyard.

"There's an official reason why it was done, but it just doesn't make sense to me," said Jim Gibb, the Annapolis archaeologist who has worked with Lawrence to restore the cemetery.

The air station was built on about 4,000 acres of large family farms and small-town crossroads taken from Cedar Point landowners for the cause - with just 30 days' notice tacked to the front door in some cases. At least one cemetery - the one at the Methodist church - was relocated. Otherwise it would have been underneath two runways.

"I suspect [covering over St. Nicholas Cemetery] was the Navy's way of saying [to those being moved], 'So long, there's no reason to come back,'" Gibb said.

"You do things in wartime that years later, when you take it out of context, you don't always understand," said Eve Love, president of the St. Mary's County Genealogical Society.

Ads running in the local newspaper gave descendants of those buried at the cemetery the opportunity to have their loved ones exhumed and buried elsewhere. Only one casket was moved (a distant cousin of Lawrence's, actually, who had died three years before).

The rest of the graves were carefully charted by Navy surveyors, who drew a map including all of the names and dates they could read off the markers and noted where crosses with no inscriptions had stood or where bodies had clearly been buried but without a grave marker. Sixty years after it was drawn, Lawrence got a copy of the map, which he has used to help pinpoint tombstones.

The Navy map shows roughly 300 burial spots. Through researching old church records and ledger books, Lawrence has come up with about 300 more.

Lawrence wasn't the first person to ask permission to restore the cemetery. He was just the first one to persevere long enough to get it. In 2003, he was finally told he could raise the tombstones of 13 veterans - including Lawrence's great-great-grandfather David Hammett, a Confederate soldier whose grave was marked with a tower made of several heavy slabs of granite and rock. One of the 13 tablets he set out to find remains elusive.

The grave markers have been found by pretty low-tech means. Using a T-shaped steel probe, they poke through the grass until they hit something hard. They dig with shovels and trowels - some of the stones are just 5 inches deep.

Once uncovered, the mystery is not solved. Often the markers are lying facedown in the mud - and many weigh hundreds of pounds. Sometimes they have to use a pulley system like those used to lift engine blocks out of cars to hoist them out of the ground.

Only then do they know whether they have found whom they are looking for.

The process has been slow. It is being done in increments of 20 stones. For each phase of the project, Lawrence must go back to the Navy for permission and must apply for a permit to do the work, which requires signatures from the Navy and the Maryland Historical Trust.

But what really holds him back is money. Though the Navy has given him permission to do the work - base spokesman John Romer said it "supports the restoration and the honor it brings to our patriots" - they are not paying for it to be done. Lawrence has had to raise the money himself - $25,000 to date, including a $10,000 donation that enabled him to go high-tech last month by having the plot of land scoured with ground-penetrating radar.

The data from the radar is still being analyzed, Lawrence said, but it revealed that the foundation of the original church, built in 1794, includes several hidden burial shafts. He suspects they could hold the remains of beloved priests or wealthy members of the Catholic church.

The cost typically comes in repairing the grave markers. Fifty percent to 75 percent are broken by the time Lawrence gets to them. Yet they are fairly well-preserved, with inscriptions as clear as if engraved yesterday, Gibb said. He suspects that acid rain, which has gotten worse since the end of World War II, has damaged other marble tablets of the same era.

Lawrence has long had an interest in history. He grew up in St. Mary's County and can trace his family's presence here to the 1640s. When he was 11, at low tide he spotted a 32-pound cannonball sticking up in the mud as he played by the shore. He has been hooked on studying the past ever since.

A few years back, his parents bought a piece of property in nearby Dameron. Part of it was an abandoned cemetery. One headstone was intact. He investigated until he found pieces of others, and before long he had completed some of the puzzle, determining that the remains dated to the late 18th century.

"There are some people who consider me ghoulish," he said. "Some people say, 'Why would you waste your time and energy and money on something like this?'"

But that energy has attracted others. Gibb, who at first was given a small fee to help Lawrence with his painstaking work because the Navy required him to have an archaeologist with him whenever he digs, now works for free. "I've never done a project like this before," he said. "This is unique. I've never seen a cemetery that was demolished with such care."

Linda Reno is an amateur historian and genealogist who runs a Web site on St. Mary's County history. She has helped Lawrence identify people based on their initials.

"It's something that needed to be done for a long time," Reno said. "It's going to be gorgeous when they finish."

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